Soft and Strong

007A glance at the label of the generic brand of bathroom tissue I use (yes, I dare to go there) got me to thinking. I can see the value of softness and strength in bathroom tissue. But as human characteristics, softness and strength seem like polar opposites, because softness is often equated by some with weakness. I take umbrage to such a notion.

My mom’s got the softness and strength combination down. You probably think the same thing about your mom. My mom’s a hand patter. If you’re miserable, she likes to sit beside you and pat your hand, telling you that everything is going to be okay. But Mom morphs into steel when she goes into battle mode. She’s quick with a handbag upside your head if you decide to break the law. Yes, there is a story attached to that statement, but I won’t go into it now.


Kate Spade handbag—a classy way to hit someone on the head

I love the juxtaposition of softness and strength in the males and females who populate various fictional worlds. Yet I have very little interest in heroes or heroines who are only seen in one light—that of strength, whether they are viewed as purely cool, physically powerful, or hilariously snarky. I can’t sympathize with a character who completely lacks a soft side. I can understand if he or she desperately wants to hide the fact that he/she is vulnerable. But the absence of any discernible softness causes me to put a story down.

Even Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has a bit of softness beneath his rock-hard abs. Don’t believe that? If you saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) [SLIGHT SPOILER], remember the hospital scene when he visits Peggy (who has her own show now on ABC—Agent Carter)? [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] That scene caused even my jaded heart to melt. And I loved the scenes between Cap and Sam Wilson (the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie), where they talked about their difficult adjustment to civilian life.


Cap and Peggy

34529Here’s a great example of softness and strength from Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. (For the plot, click on the book title.) The narration below shows what a character named Shawn thinks about a witch named Magrat who needs to rescue Shawn from some murderous elves. [SLIGHT SPOILER] Shawn doubts her ability to help until he realizes a fundamental truth:

Mum was right—Magrat always was the nice soft one . . .
. . . who’d just fired a crossbow through a keyhole. (268)

Shawn later learns that Magrat (who works with Greebo, a vicious cat described as “just a big softy” [269]) was extremely lethal, even as she “daintily” raises the hem of her dress to kick an iron-allergic elf with shoes bearing iron attachments. [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] Good stuff!

Because of the desire to portray heroines in a strong light and not as damsels in distress, sometimes authors (and I’m thinking mostly of myself) fight against bringing out a heroine’s soft side, hoping readers won’t judge their characters as weak.


You might get the impression of softness when you see this cupcake. My plans to take over the world, however, might cause you to think something entirely different.

In the first incarnation of my novel, my heroine didn’t seem to have any flaws. She only mildly annoyed some of the secondary characters. Her inability to laugh at herself—to see herself as flawed—was a flaw on my part as the author. I had to start over with her and her story.

The first thing I needed to do was take myself out of the equation. While I hate to be ridiculed or abused, that doesn’t mean I should avoid writing a character’s journey that involves horrible bumps in the road. And while I like to be liked, a character who is liked by everyone isn’t a very compelling character.

One of my VCFA advisors once told me to pay attention to the way secondary characters act toward the main character. While that might seem elementary to you if you’re an experienced storyteller, that advice instigated an epiphany for me. The friction of interactions, often caustic, helped shape the pearl of a better character. Even more interesting, it provided the mixture of softness and strength I find compelling.

In what ways are your characters soft and strong?

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter from somewhere on the Internet. Kate Spade handbag from Book cover from Goodreads.

44 thoughts on “Soft and Strong

  1. Great post. I usually give my characters some level of defiance or moments where they muster up some courage. I also give them emotional moments like crying, kindness toward an upset friend, doubt, etc. I really enjoy having them be both because that feels more real to me, but it seems that isn’t always the popular opinion. You bring up female characters and I fully agree with that. A strong heroine typically seems to be one that has no softness, but one can see that those with the longer lifespan do have this side. Xena and Wonder Woman are still remembered and both of them have had ‘weak’ instances, which drew out their humanity and connected with the reader. From my own series, I’ve noticed the male characters really get ripped on if they show softness. There’s an odd mentality toward fantasy where heroes are almost expected to be strong killers with hardened hearts even if they’re joke-flinging, happy characters. Luke Callindor gets in trouble with readers all the time for showing his emotions. Makes me really wonder what the definition of manly is because it seems to be ’emotionless jerk who has a license to kill’.

    • Charles, I thought of you when I wrote this post, because I recall your posting about this issue and how some complained about this aspect with your characters. I’m amazed that people are so stuck on heroes being only one way–strong. Strength has many different sides. Sure we love seeing Captain America emerge from the elevator, having pulverized all those guys sent to kill him. But if that was all there was to him, the final scenes of the movie would have had little meaning.

      I feel irked that people complain about Luke. Remember how James Bond was pretty one note before they decided to make his emotional life more complex with the Daniel Craig movies? And is Liam Neeson’s character in the Taken movies emotionless? I think not.

      • One of my favorite scenes in Winter Soldier was how his fight with the aforementioned Winter Solider ended. It really showed how the character is more than muscle and that whole inner strength thing.

        Exactly with Bond. Back in those days, heroes were expected to be strong and cold. Now they can be more human, but people complain if you go ‘too far’. Yet you get complaints for one-dimensional characters too. Just no winning. 😛

      • It seems that way. Now I’m curious as to who people view as the “perfect” hero–if there is such a person. Would they say Jason Bourne, who was strong, but vulnerable in his amnesia and love for his girlfriend?

      • So much of what people think as “strong” seems to have to do with where they feel weak. When I’m feeling weak or devalued, I like to watch shows or movies with very strong, capable people winning battles. I might think, That’s how I want to be. But on another day, I might have a different perspective.

      • I got really bored with Naruto after a while. Same thing with Bleach. It just felt like they would never end. I know DBZ did the same thing, but that feels more vintage to me. Probably because I saw it before the others. Yet nothing was as bad as the insanity that was Inuyasha. Ugh.

      • I also got bored with Naruto. It just felt like the same thing over and over. I was really, really into DBZ at one point. Episodes aired three times a day!!!

      • The issue that came up with Naruto and Bleach really was that it repeatedly came down to one character. There wasn’t even an attempt to hide that fact. Even if the other characters trained, it resulted in them not being good enough. I guess DBZ did that too, but it seemed less embarrassing there.

      • I go for something else. Though I don’t own any of those series. I stuck to the shorter ones. The longest one in my collection might be Fushigi Yuugi or Kenshin.

      • Fun series, but there’s the dreaded ‘funeral’ episode that is so friggin’ rough to get through. Not spoiling that one even though people that knew it was coming still cringed.

  2. Thanks for this post, Linda. I love that seeming paradox between soft and strong. I love a female character who can daintily lift her dress to kick an elf! And I especially love male characters who are strong and competent, but who show vulnerability to those they love. (I’m a sucker for that!)

    • Me too, Laura!!! That’s why I really like Winter Soldier. Such a great mixture of soft and strong. A big plus is the fact that Chris Evans is extremely easy on the eyes.
      Lords and Ladies is hilarious! I highly recommend it. Terry Pratchett is one of the reasons why I’m writing what I’m writing now.

  3. I am sure even that Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher was a pussycat behind closed doors with Dennis. Anyway, I must go now, I’ve deeply disturbed myself with that created image.

    • So true, Nancy!!! Siblings also do that. 😀 They push our buttons! I guess that’s shaping our characters, though I didn’t see it that way growing up. I was too busy yelling, “He took my stuff!” “He’s annoying me!” “He stuck his foot in my room!”

  4. What I learned about secondary characters at VCFA is that they can make the protagonist more likable. I tend to make my characters more strong than soft, so secondary characters can bring out a more sympathetic side.

    • That’s cool too, Lyn. I tend to make my characters too sympathetic. My secondary characters remind me of how I came across when I was a rebellious teen (and often these days): annoying, sarcastic, and stubborn. Thinking of that reminds me to make my main characters more authentic.

  5. Yes! My mom is like your mom except that she prefers Louis Vuitton bags for hitting over the head with! 🙂 You are right in that it is much more interesting to see different sides of a character in order to understand their depth and actions. Just don’t squeeze the Charmin! 🙂

    • Don’t forget dads too, Phillip. I was sitting behind a guy yesterday at church. His little daughter kept wanting to be picked up. He picked her up every time. So sweet.

  6. I think Em is both soft and strong in my novel. I’m not sure about me in my memoir. But you’ve definitely given me something to think about for my WIPs. We girls have to face such judgment, don’t we?

    • Andra, your vulnerability and strength are obvious in your memoir. I even marked pages in my copy (59, 90,92, and others).
      Yes, we do. One of life’s double standards. 😦

  7. Excellent post. This is something I have to remind myself about in my work. i think the term ‘strong’ has been hijacked. Strength isn’t about how many bad guys your heroine or hero can take down. That could be skill or muscle or luck. I think a strong character is one that has strength of character and that involves depth, vulnerability, conscience, values, determination, etc. And any character that comes across as perfect in whatever they do is boring because there is no room for growth. My daughter read a book about a sniper (can’t remember the title but not the one the movie is based on), who in the beginning said that every time he killed, he lost a bit of his soul. He knew the necessity of his job; he was very, very good at it, but he struggled with it every step of the way. This is what stuck out to her; it is what made him sympathetic and human.

    • Thanks, Nancy. Love your thoughts on strength. Wow, that book your daughter read sounds interesting. Years ago, I remember reading a manuscript about a sniper who said something similar. Perhaps that book was published and it’s the one your daughter read.

  8. Great post! I much prefer characters with both elements. And what excellent writing advice about the secondary characters and their reactions. Thanks for passing that on.

    • Thanks, Stephanie. Yes, the secondary characters can earn their place in a novel with the conflict they provide. I needed them to help my main characters to fail miserably.

  9. “because softness is often equated by some with weakness. I take umbrage to such a notion.”
    Yes! Thank you! Especially the damsel in distress bit. There’s nothing wrong with a damsel being both strongly distressed and distressingly strong.

    • I totally agree with you, ReGi. Strength comes in many different flavors. Gentleness takes strength. I know some guys who are huge and intimidating. Yet they’re very gentle with people, especially children. These guys have a lot of self-control.

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